Franco-Flemish double-manual harpsichord, originally a 'transposing' harpsichord made in Antwerp in 1617 by an unknown maker.  It was given a bass ravalement in Paris in 1750 by François Étienne Blanchet and it was later given a treble ravalement in 1786 by Jacques Barberini and Nicolas Hoffmann.

 

 

A Brief Musical and Decorative History of the Franco-Flemish Harpsichord

 

State 1 - 1617.  The instrument was not made by any of the members of the Ruckers/Couchet family, although it was made in Antwerp,.  The original state is typical of a classic Flemish double-manual harpsichord made in Antwerp.  The instrument may possibly have been made by the otherwise almost unknown Antwerp builder Frans van Huffel (fl. 1609-1626).  The upper manual compass was probably like the keyboard of a normal Ruckers double-manual harpsichord with a compass of C/E to c3 at normal pitch, and with a lower-manual compass of C/E to f3 a fourth lower.  There were, at any rate, three sets of doubled strings, now indicated by the presence of doubled 4' bridge pins and doubled 4' hitchpin for these notes. These are represented in the diagram at the left with small triangles for the eb/g# notes.  Such instruments are best known among the output of Ioannes and Andreas Ruckers, but it can be shown scientifically that the instrument is not by any of the members of the Ruckers family as it has numerous features that are totally different from normal Ruckers practice.

State 2 - ?c.1680?.  ‘Ghost State’ - place and date unknown.  It is most likely that the keyboards were aligned to give them both a compass of G1/B1 to c3 with 50 notes.  No direct evidence has been found on the instrument of this state, but this is the usual first alteration to State 1, and State 3 would follow logically on from this.

State 3 - c.1700-1735, Paris.   Here the compass was G1/B1 to d3 on both manuals each with 52 notes, as indicated by the earliest surviving sections of the lower guides which still survive, although with additions.  One note was added at the top and one at the bottom of the compass State 2.  The instrument was probably decorated in some kind of embossed gold ornamentation, like that on the jackrail re-used inside the instrument as a structural brace when it was widened in 1750 in State 4 below.  The genuine ‘HR’ rosette may have been inserted at this date to make a new buyer think the instrument was by Hans or Ioannes Ruckers.  The rosette may also have been added by François Étienne Blanchet who seems to have made a habit of this kind of practice.

State 4 - 1750, Paris.  The bass compass was extended down by 6 notes from B1 to F1 to give a compass from F1 to d3 with 58 notes.  Most of the case decoration and the majority of the inner and outer lid decoration date to this period.  The paintings on the lid and case have been attributed to François Boucher (29 September 1703 – 30 May 1770) with the ornaments around the painting attributed to Christophe Huet (1700 - 1759).  The top d3 jacks of two of the three surviving rows have the date ‘1750’ written on them, and these and the 57 jacks below them all belong together and to this state.  The musical part of this state has been positively attributed to François Étienne Blanchet II (c.1730-1766),  facteur des clavessins du roi[sic]’  (see point 2 below).

State 5 - 1786, Paris.  The work carried out at this time is by Jacques Barberini [active 1782 - 1791] and Nicolas Hoffman [active 1786-1790], although the exact role that each played in this alterations is not clear.  The compass was widened in the treble by 3 notes from 58 to 61 notes to give F1 to f3.  This is the present compass and the classic compass of an 18th-century French harpsichord.  In the process of widening the instrument, the cheek was shortened, putting the figures painted in 1750 on this side slightly off-centre.  In the process the bentside was lengthened and the join at the treble end of the original bentside was disguised with a kind of floral decoration. 

(State 5 - continued)  As part of the ravalement of the Franco-Flemish harpsichord in 1786, it was ‘modernised’ at a time when harpsichords were competing with pianos as ‘expressive’ instruments.  Having already had 4 registers in its original state, along with the usual 2x8', 1x4' sets of jacks, it was given a fourth row of peau de buffle jacks, and a genouillère to enable the player to ‘swell’ and change the registration without taking his/her hands off the keyboards.  Various blocks underneath the keyboards for the genouillère still remain as evidence of this state, but there is now no evidence of how the original genouillère might have worked.  The front surface of the lower full-width belly-rail was inscribed “[Re]fait par N. Hoffmann a Paris 1786” which therefore also gives the date and author of at least one of those who carried out this ravalement.  The peau de buffle upper guide from this state was re-used as a lower guide in the 1971 ‘restoration’ by Roberto de Regina in Buenos Aires (see below).   De Regina is reported to have found the calling card of Jacques Barberini on the 1786 baseboard and so Barberini must also have had a hand in this state, but it seems now impossible to say which features (most of them in any case now being missing) belong to Barberini and which to Hoffmann.

 

General notes:  There is rigorous scientific evidence that the instrument was originally made in Antwerp and that it uses the Antwerp duim - the thumb or inch - in its design and construction.  However, most of the original design principles are quite unlike those found in the instruments built in the usual Ruckers/Couchet tradition.  These differences make it clear that it was not originally an instrument made in the Ruckers/Couchet workshops.

          The various alterations to the width of the case are visible on the surfaces of the case, lid, jackrail and front flap, although sometimes these are disguised by later decorations.  The extensions to both ends of 2 of the 3 surviving registers and to the 3 lower guides are clearly visible, and the number of notes added at each stage tallies perfectly with the above compass history. 

          There can be no doubt that the surviving case and lid decorations are all from the 18th century with the exception of some badly-painted additions made around 1889 when the instrument is known to have been owned by Louis Tomasini in Paris.  These late decorations are similar to those of Daniel Merlin who decorated some other instruments by Tomasini and others (all now in Berlin) in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle for which the Eiffel Tower was built, and who also decorated some 'Roccoco' pianos by Pleyel. 

 

The dates that can be associated with this instrument with complete assurance are the following:

1.1617 - the date of construction is given in the first edition of the Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Ed. George Grove (Macmillan Pub., London, 1883) p. 197 which lists those instruments then thought to be by the various members of the Ruckers family.  This entry is reproduced below:

      The measurements in the fourth column are all in English inches and are all close to the total outside measurements of the lid of the Instrument.

      The publication of this entry [1883] follows shortly after the date 1878 when the instrument was known to have belonged to 'M. Pilette' in Brussels.  The source of the information is Victor Mahillon, one-time director of the Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments.  The statement: ‘Paintings in Vernis Martin, lately removed’ in the above entry is certainly not true as these decorations survive to the present day.  The later editions of Grove's Dictionary do not give the date but list the instrument as ‘n.d.’ = no date  The original soundboard decoration with the date seems later to have been wiped off and then re-decorated (without a date) by Mabel Dolmetsch when it belonged to Arnold Dolmetsch.  Similar details in the subsequent entries in the later editions of Grove's Dictionary make it clear that this entry does in fact refer the same instrument.

2. 1750 - the date written on the top jack of two of the three surviving rows of jacks when it had a compass of F1 to d3 with 58 jacks in each row.  This number of jacks corresponds to the width of the instrument when the tail, spine and front board ornaments and the inside and outside of the lid ornaments and paintings were painted and decorated.  Many features of the musical alteration which were made to the instrument in 1750 are of absolutely superb quality, typical of the work of François Étienne II Blanchet, who has been positively identified as the author of the ravalement

 

Click here to see a larger image of the date 1750 on the jacks.

 

3. 1786 - the date and signature written (upside down with the instrument in its normal position) by Nicolas Hoffman on the front surface of the full-width lower belly rail and visible with the keyboards removed:  "[Re]fait par Nicolas Hoffman a Paris 1786".  It seems to have been written by Hoffman after the belly-rail had been fixed in place and before the baseboard was attached.  In 1786 the instrument had a full 5-octave compass from F1 to f3.  By this date Louis XV was dead so the instrument may then have belonged to Louis XVI.  Jacques Barberini must also have worked on the instrument at (or around) this time as his calling card was found glued to the full-width ravalement baseboard when the instrument was owned by Barbara and Wolf Wolf in Buenos Aires.  1786 is probably also the date of the stand since there is no sign on the stand of it having been widened from an earlier stand for the 1750 state.

4. 1878 - The harpsichord belonged to one M. Pilette (I can find nothing about this person) in Brussels according to the first edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (see above).

5. 1889 -1892 - the period when the instrument was owned by Louis Tomasini and when he ‘restored’ the instrument, added some minor 'extra' elements to the case ornaments and probably had the soundboard painting removed.  He is known to have organised concerts in Paris on "Le clavecin doré" - ‘The Gold Harpsichord’, and he made copies of the instrument on which concerts were also given. 

6.  13 May, 1927 - The instrument was sold in Sotheby's as lot 170.  There is no surviving evidence of who the buyer was, but it is likely that it was William Randolph Hearst (see section on the modern history) who bought it along with other art objects to furnish his San Simeon Castel in California.

 

                                                                                                                                           - Grant O’Brien, April, 2017

 

 

Important Features of this harpsichord

 

Details of the original state of the instrument

 

Details of the eighteenth-century states of this harpsichord

  

 Details of the modern history of this harpsichord

 

Problems encountered in the ethical restoration of this harpsichord

 

 The attributions of the 1750 state to  François Étienne Blanchet, Christophe Huet and François Boucher

 

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This page was last revised on 11 December 2018.